Tea Times in Great Britain: A Popular Event

Tea times in Great Britain did not become popular over night. Nor did everyone believe it a beneficial beverage. In fact, Jonas Hanway, the first man brave enough to carry an umbrella in London, was a vociferous proponent against tea. Hanway became so upset at Samuel Johnson for his vocal enjoyment of tea, he responded saying:

“I have long considered tea, not only as a prejudicial article of commerce; but also of a most pernicious tendency … and very injurious to health … Tea causes the diminution of our Numbers.”[1]

Jonas Hanway by James Northcote, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Jonas Hanway by James Northcote. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

He also wrote as essay titled Tea and its Pernicious Consequences. In the essay Hanway declared tea would ruin the nation. However, rather than ruin the nation, tea became a quintessential part of it.

Once tea became a common beverage, a number of tea times in Great Britain emerged. In addition, the word “tea” began to connote a meal rather than just a drink and there were differences between these teas: Teas had different foods, different times, different levels of sophistication, different names, and different expectations. There was breakfast tea, low tea, afternoon tea, great tea, little tea, handed tea, kettledrum tea, high tea, meat tea, and royal tea.

Breakfast tea ranged from tea and toast to grand sophisticated affairs with a variety of foods served in bedchambers, dining rooms, or even outdoors. Eliza Cheadle, author of Manners of Modern Society, claimed in 1872 the following:

“[Breakfast was] always a pleasant meal, both in winter and summer, spring, and autumn … a delightful mixture of the lively and the snug … a clean table cloth and tea-things together with tempting viands spread there … And if we be alone … a hot cup of tea at one’s elbow and a piece of butter toast.”[2]

Tea times in Great Britain - John, Fourteenth Lord Willoughby de Broke, and his Family at Tea

John, Fourteenth Lord Willoughby de Broke, and his family at tea. Courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum.

When breakfast was a grand affair dishes ranged from “tempting fruit perdu in nests of green leaves … crisp rolls and golden butter together with the more substantial dishes [such as] … eggs, potted meats, fish, &c … interspersed with racks of dry toast, hot rolls, teacakes, and muffins.”[3]

Low tea, or afternoon tea, was a formal tea traditionally served by the upper classes to stave off hunger until the evening meal. Low tea was usually served late in the afternoon, around 4 pm and consisted of light refreshments usually served in a withdrawing room. Low tea, similar to high tea, got its name from the height of the table. Low tea was served on a low table, akin to today’s coffee table. Refreshments were served on cakes stand that stood on the floor or sat on a table. Additionally, “when eating bread and butter, tea cakes, muffins, or anything else that had butter spread on it, a lady would of course take off her gloves before beginning to eat, as the butter would spoil them, and it would be contrary to etiquette to keep them on. When the lady had finished her tea, she would put her gloves on again, previous to taking leave of her hostess.”[4] That was why it was always a good idea to have food available that was dry to the touch, because a woman could then leave her gloves on and not dirty them.

Cheadle maintained there were two classes of teas: “great teas” and “little teas.” However, little tea was also sometimes called handed teas or kettledrums, which presumably referred to the kettle. Handed tea or kettledrums were really light afternoon teas, usually served between 4 and 5 o’clock. These teas were meant to the span the gap between lunch and supper, and as there was scant food served, it became known as little tea. Little teas were also considered social, informal affairs:

“People do not assemble at these five o’clock teas to eat and drink, but merely to see and talk to each other, and take a cup of tea…The tea equipage is brought in and placed on the table near the lady of the house, who dispenses it herself.”[5]

Legend has it the vivacious Duchess of Bedford started the tradition of afternoon tea times in Great Britain because she could not last until suppertime and found a “little tea” with a bite of bread and butter was enough to suffice. However, others — Fanny Burney and John Wesley — mention afternoon tea long before the Duchess was said to have had any influence, although the Duchess of Bedford may have been the first to serve finger foods with her tea.

Tea times in Great Britain - Mrs. Beeton's Afternoon Tea Table

Mrs. Beeton’s afternoon tea table. Author’s collection.

“High” Tea, as mentioned got its name from the height of the dinner table. Cheadle would have considered this a “great tea.” It was not a fancy tea but rather a substantial meal that often substituted for the evening meal, which is why High Tea is sometimes referred to as “meat tea.” It was enjoyed any day of the week, and, although not exclusive to the lower and middle classes, was most frequently served by them. However, by the late 1800s, Isabella Mary Beeton (known more commonly as Mrs. Beeton), maintained High Tea was not as popular as it had been earlier and called such teas “moveable feasts.” She said they could be enjoyed outdoors depending on the weather and that the viands could varied by season for High Tea.

“In summer cold fish and meats, mayonaises, salads, fresh fruits, cream, &c., are generally the rule; and in winter, besides such cold dishes as game pie, joints, and sweets, such things as rissoles, salmis and cutlets are usually given.”[6]

Queen Victoria, Author's Collection

Queen Victoria. Author’s collection.

Tea times in Great Britain and the idea of Royal Tea may have started with Catharine of Braganza but it is Queen Victoria that made tea drinking ultra-fashionable during her reign. Royal tea is the same as afternoon tea but today includes the addition of champagne or sherry. Queen Victoria loved tea and drank it regularly, which, of course, made tea drinking even more popular in England. An unnamed servant wrote about the Queen’s private life noting how much she enjoyed tea.

“In one thing, however, the Queen may be said to indulge … and that is tea. … Whether Her Majesty helps to boil the kettle herself, or whether it is brought to her ready made, she always loves her tea. In the year 1887, when she honoured … [the] then Lord Mayor of London, with her presence at tea … it was charming to watch her carefully remove her gloves, untie her bonnet strings, and fling them over her shoulders, preparatory to enjoying ‘the cup that cheers.'”[7]

Queen Victoria also popularized afternoon receptions, which she introduced in 1865, and she gave various tea parties during her reign.

Tea times in Great Britain are still enjoyed today and consumed daily by a majority of the its people. It is remains one of Britain’s most popular beverages, and it is customary to be served tea when visiting someone’s home. However, Ireland is the biggest per-capita consumer of tea in the world, boasting a national average of four cups per day per person with many people drinking six or more cups daily. The idea of afternoon tea with cakes or bread and butter is now more of a stereotype than an actuality. However, a “cream tea” is served in cafes in southwest England consisting of clotted cream, scones and jam, along with the tea. Additionally, the word “tea” still refers to an evening meal throughout most of the United Kingdom.


  • [1] Hanway, Jonas, A Journal of Eight Days Journey from Portsmouth to Kingston Upon Thames, 1756, p. 204.
  • [2] Cheadle, Eliza, Manners of Modern Society, 1872, p. 115.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Howard, Lady Constance Eleanora C., Etiquette: What to Do, and How to Do It, 1885, p. 234.
  • [5] Cheadle, Eliza, p. 158. 
  • [6] Beeton, Isabella, Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery Book: And Household Guide, 1898, p. 263.
  • [7] The Private Life of Queen Victoria, 1901, p. 142-143.

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